There are three complete texts of Robert Bridges' sonnet sequence, the Growth of Love:
1876 - 24 sonnets
1889 - 79 sonnets
1898 - 69 sonnets
The best known version is the third, which is the subject of the present recording.
The title of the work is a little misleading, as it suggests a process of development, a deepening understanding, by which one arrives at a more comprehensive appreciation of the mysterious entity which we call love. In fact, Bridge's journey is a meandering, rather than a goal-oriented path. Each sonnet is a window through which the poet gazes at one of the multifarious aspects of a quintessential numinosity which will always escape definition. Bridge's approach is one of gentle and courteous appreciation, observational rather than meditative, and completely free from the feeling of striving for salvation or apotheosis.
The Growth of Love contains no dogma and little argument. For Bridges, God's love to win is easy but only becomes fully realized in the reciprocal appreciation by man. Like Wordsworth, and unlike Bridges' great contemporary and friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bridges seems to have enjoyed a continuing awareness of the Divine presence, an experience completely satisfactory in itself, free from striving and productive of a transcendent calm.
Bridges' verse is smooth and mellifluous, constructed with discreet and meticulous skill, but completely void of virtuosity. However, the unspectacular appearance of Bridges' work tends to conceal the provocative nature of his essential thesis. A comparison between the work of Hopkins and that of Bridges, with regard to their religious views is very revealing. Hopkins, the poetic virtuoso and the radical reconstructor of metre, is backward-looking in his religiosity: like the medieval saint he tortures himself in the struggle to reconcile himself to a God who refuses to be anthropomorphized. Bridges, on the other hand, allows himself to be satisfied with whatever falls from the hand of God: he seeks no justification, no glory and no finality of bliss. He describes the state that he most desires in Sonnet 38: I would have life - thou saidst - all as this day,
Simple enjoyment calm in its excess,
With not a grief to cloud, and not a ray
Of passion overhot my peace to oppress;
With no ambition to reproach delay,
Nor rapture to disturb its happiness.
Ironically, Bridges' view, with its sublime disregard for the trammels of organized religion, is the truly radical one. By contrast, Hopkins uses avant garde methods to articulate a personal spiritual struggle, analogous to those described endured and described by Origen, Augustine of Hippo, Peter Abelard and Pascal. Bridges has moved beyond the sense of despair, futility, and even tragedy, to a clear state of non-expectant appreciation.
This is not to say that Bridges does not touch darker themes. The bleak chill of Winter and the pangs of loneliness can be found in some of the sonnets and Bridges makes many frank admissions of what he feels to be his personal shortcomings. However, the collection is permeated overall with the breath of the seraph rather than the howl of the demon. Like Omar Khayyam, Bridges has realized that a human life is a brief episode in a world of wonders, some terrible but many beautiful.
The final sonnet is an elegant reworking of the Lord's Prayer, in which the poet asks God to: Perfect Thy kingdom in our passing state
and urges the Divine to forget rather than forgive man's iniquity. Comfort from the terrors of existence is sought, and the poet leaves us with no final revelation or admonition but with an unspoken suggestion that we ourselves seek out this abode of eternal serenity.
My initial intention was to record this series in short segments, five or six sonnets each day. However, Bridges' verse was so seductive that I found it impossible to limit myself to such a meagre allowance. In spite of the apparent evenness of Bridges' prosody, there was never a sense of dullness or satiation. Reading this collection was somewhat like watching the ocean: a universal consistency made fascinating by an infinity of detail. I hope that listeners likewise will find joy in mining the riches of this neglected collection.
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